Walking the Path Toward a World Without Alzheimer's

At the time of this writing, I've just checked the top 30 rankings for communities that host Walks to End Alzheimer's throughout the United States. My Walk is sitting at number 5 and just crossed 900 thousand dollars in total fundraising. I'm in awe and tears for the umpteenth time this "Walk season."

Why the tears? Well, let's start at the beginning.

A phone call away

When I found the Walk to End Alzheimer's, I was a junior at Penn State University. My Poppop, Bill, was well into his battle with Alzheimer's when I got my acceptance letter and pranced my way off to University Park to eventually be the first person in my family to graduate from college. This was a proud moment for the man who bought me my first computer and loved to hand me articles about the day's political climate! When I would call him from Penn State, he'd have two questions for me: 1. How's Joe Pa doing? And 2. Am I staying out of trouble?

Those of you who are caregivers or living with Alzheimer's may see a slight issue with that statement. I called him. Being away from your loved one during the days-are-numbered good times is tough! I so greatly wanted to be there to grab groceries, take my Gram out to Target so she could do something other than caregiving for a few minutes, or sit and have a cup of tea with them. But I knew I was where I was supposed to be for the time being.

A rush of helplessness

It was during a rush of helpless emotions, either after a phone call with my Mom, who wasn't getting enough help from her 6 siblings in supporting and taking care of their parents, or it was after a call with Poppop in which I could hear the sheer heartbreak in his voice as he lost his train of thought before telling me "it's the Reagan's disease," that I did what any good college student does best, I researched!

I found the Philly Walk to End Alzheimer's, I signed up, alerted my family members, and arranged with my Gram for Poppop to attend. My sister and I came home from Penn State that weekend, dragging along our little sister, Cheyenne, and aided by my cousin, Taylor, who graciously agreed to be our "bathroom man," we strapped Poppop in my hand-me-down Dodge Durango to join the walk for the first time.

It was a windy day. I have photos of us, cousins, acting silly like the blow-up men in front of a car dealership, arms flailing. Cheyenne, for a moment, seemed like she might actually get blown away. Poppop grabbed his sweatshirt a little tighter, following us on, what seemed to him, I'm sure, a harrowing adventure. He posed with the Mike Schmidt statue solo and then with all of us in front of the beautiful holiday tree outside the first base gate. When it was time to go home, Pop queried for the ice cream I had promised him on the way to the Walk. Some things, it seems, are harder to forget than others.

A day of normalcy

On that day in 2010, the Walk gave my family and me a day of semi-normalcy. We laughed, walked, had ice cream, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight against Alzheimer's disease. Those feelings of helplessness weren't gone, but they were appeased for the moment, knowing I'd entered the battlefield instead of sitting on the sidelines.

Tears line the path

It's been 22 years since our journey with Alzheimer's began, 12 years since that first walk, and 7 years since I saw my Poppop for the final time.

So yes, I cry when I see the tireless group of volunteers I have the pleasure of leading hurdling over milestones like Olympic athletes. I cry because I know that each new Walker we register both gets us closer to a world without Alzheimer's and represents another person who is feeling this grief that comes with Alzheimer's. I cry because I'm just looking at one walk in a country with about 600 walks, all of which are bringing in staggering amounts of money to fund research to find a cure for Alzheimer's and all other dementias. And I cry because I would never have seen myself as the chair of an event that will raise more than 900 thousand dollars to bring Alzheimer's to its knees — but my Poppop may have.

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